Simply put, the speed of mobile technology adoption is profoundly changing the way we operate. According to a 2013 Cisco report, the number of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and internet-capable phones will exceed the number of humans on the planet within the next year. As we recognized when we leveraged responsive design patterns to breathe new life into Penn State’s outdated online presence, it is essential that organizations be prepared to adapt to a mobile audience. The organizations that will ultimately thrive will be the ones who actively reap the benefits of an effective mobile strategy.
This is obvious in enterprise, but it is also true of higher education - and is perhaps why adoption is becoming more important in the latter. Colleges and universities can make major strides in improving their students’ educational experiences and engaging existing and prospective students by capitalizing on the opportunities offered by mobile technology. Of course, not every mobile device will effectively engage students in every classroom; therefore, a prudent, strategic approach that fits within the university’s larger digital strategy is necessary. Below I offer five suggestions for effectively leveraging mobile technology in higher education:
1. Make learning more interactive, flexible, and convenient. A 2013 study by the University of Central Florida found that the rate of students using smartphones and tablets for academic purposes nearly doubled in just one year. The reason? Students volunteered that they enjoyed the convenience, flexibility, and interactivity of mobile learning. Not all devices are created equal, however: tablets were far and away the most powerful learning tool due to their portability and larger screen sizes, allowing students to retrieve and compose information more easily than on smaller mobile devices. Of the students who owned tablets, 82% of them used them for academic purposes (as opposed to 58% for small mobile devices).
This presents universities with both an incredible opportunity and challenge: they have the potential to take full advantage of students’ enthusiasm for tablets in education through technology applications, as well as the need to ensure access to those devices when ownership may be unequally distributed. Furthermore, instructors must be able to efficiently integrate these technologies into the curriculum and accurately measure the value they add.
2. Leverage new types of data to inform instruction and educational choices. DigitalLearningNow! was absolutely correct when they made the observation that today’s educational systems are data rich but information poor. The availability -- or, more accurately, the impending flood -- of mobile data has the potential to either exacerbate or reverse this trend. It all depends on universities finding ways to creatively utilize data points that could easily be obtained through mobile devices. In some cases, it wouldn’t involve much more than reenacting what has already been done in other industries. Just like Pandora and Spotify, for instance, which create customized music playlists using analytics tied to the previous experiences of millions of other users, universities can use data to create a personally-tailored experience based upon learning methods, skills, or interests.
Some forward-thinking colleges are already conducting their own “big data” experiments. Here are some examples of the way they are attempting to deliver a more personalized education to students:
Rio Salado College uses a data program called RioLearn to predict how well a student will do in a class based on their past performance, allowing for more informed course selection during registration. It boasts an 80-90 percent accuracy rate on predicting student success and has led to a 40 percent decline in drop rates.
The University of Texas has been beta-testing a system called “virtual tracking of real-time assessment,” or vTRAC. The system allows professors to see how students answered questions in real time from their own devices (laptops, smartphones, or tablets). By tracking where students are sitting when they answer a question, vTRAC allows professors to immediately identify who is struggling and provide assistance on the spot. So far, the experiment has been a success: professors say the system fosters more student engagement and participation in class, and it has allowed the instructors to raise the bar when developing exam questions.
In what Scientific American called “an experimental reinvention of American higher education,” Arizona State University offers web-based courses that shape and personalize a student’s learning experience via an “eAdvisor” available around the clock. They also have a Facebook app that mines student profiles to recommend friends with similar interests, a useful connectivity tool for a university with more than 70,000 students.
3. Never underestimate the power of student contributions. Universities should keep in mind that their digitally-savvy students can be a valuable asset in improving overall educational experiences. Students are often the sources of genius and disruptive ideas, as they bring a fresh perspective and intimate knowledge of student needs. As one Stanford student put it, “Many university [tech] initiatives fail because they are too top-down. Nobody wants to be told what to do - especially college students.” That is not to say college students are uninterested in new tech initiatives; they’d just like to be involved in the process.
Some universities have already capitalized on student enthusiasm for mobile development and participation, with exciting results:
Entreprenurial: In 2008, Stanford helped two students found Terriblyclever, which sells software to help other students find campus maps, directories, and other information on their iPhones. Now used by more than 100 colleges, the app was purchased by Blackboard for $4 million last year.
Participation: Also at Stanford, several students with university support created an app called CreditU, which rewards students who attend class. Students with better attendance records will receive cheaper campus meals, and eventually discounts on bigger-ticket items like student loans and car insurance. CreditU verifies attendance by checking students' GPS locations when they check in to class.
Creativity: The University of Washington hosts various Design Challenges in which students create mobile apps around a certain theme. Last year’s Challenge was called the Innovative Application of FAA Data design challenge, which required students to use FAA, industry, travel and airport-relevant data to develop a mobile application for use for by smart phones and tablets that is innovative and commercially viable. This is just one of many development challenges the University of Washington promotes for its students, including a “development olympics” to participate in the redesign of its own mobile app.
4. Prepare students for success in the 21st century. The students of today require different skills than the students of yesterday. Education stakeholders are doing their students a disservice if they do not provide the learning tools and experiences needed for success in the Information Age, 21st century workplace, and global economy. Beyond knowing how to use their smartphones to filter a picture on Instagram or tweet about their feelings, students must have the ability to not only individually access current information, but also adapt and analyze it in real time. Integrating those skills with existing mobile use -- and educating for best practices of digital learning and citizenship -- will prove a key responsibility of higher education, and I urge universities to begin leading that charge now. A major element of the Framework for 21st Century Learning is the “ability to learn through digital means.” Mobile devices may be the best way yet to achieve this goal.
5. Engage prospective students by fusing mobile and content strategy. Whether the platform is a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or classroom lecture, content is still king. It is key that universities engage their students so that they know their students, how they use the school’s site(s), and what content they value most. Moreover, universities must be able to connect with potential students, as first impressions can be make or break. According to a study published by Noel-Levitz, 7 out of 10 college-bound students feel that an institution’s website affects their perception of a college, and 50 percent said the web played a significant role in their decision to apply to college. Schools which leverage mobile technology to plug in to this audience will have a tactical advantage over schools who don’t, as 78 percent of prospective students have regular access to mobile devices and 68 percent have looked at a college website on mobile devices. Quality content is useless unless it can reach its targeted audience, which will make having a mobile presence increasingly necessary to connect with a generation that has grown up with mobile technology.
I will end with one last note: the potential for mobile technology to improve and ultimately profoundly change higher education is tremendous. Of course, the recommendations proposed above are just 5 small steps, but the universities that strategically embrace mobile devices for educational and engagement purposes will be the ones that not only thrive as institutions, but provide the greatest value to their students in the changing digital world.